Congress abandons constraints on Kurdish aid

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Article Summary
US lawmakers wary of Iraqi Kurds’ independence push have shelved their concerns amid Baghdad’s Iran-backed push to reassert control.

Congress put the Iraqi Kurds on notice this summer against going forward with their independence vote. In the aftermath of Baghdad’s heavy-handed response, however, congressional ire is falling squarely on the central government.

US lawmakers’ new attitude is most evident in the final version of national defense legislation released Nov. 8. While the original House bill made US military aid to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) “contingent upon KRG participation in the government of a unified Iraq,” final compromise legislation between the House and Senate contains no such warning (the Department of Defense has requested $365 million in stipends and sustainment for Kurdish peshmerga forces for fiscal year 2018).

Instead, advisory report language accompanying the bill addresses recent clashes between Iraqi security forces and Kurdish peshmerga forces by calling on “all parties to defuse tensions.” It specifically points the finger at the predominantly Shiite militias fighting alongside the Iraqi state.

“The conferees are alarmed by reports of clashes among security force elements over control of contested areas in Iraq and especially alarmed by reports of engagements between Kurdish peshmerga forces and Iranian-backed paramilitary forces,” says the report. “The conferees emphasize the significant contributions Kurdish security forces have made to countering [the Islamic State (IS)] and condemn Iranian interference in Iraqi affairs.”

Both Shiite and Sunni Arab political parties in Iraq have condemned the KRG referendum, as has the Donald Trump administration. Still, Congress has chosen to direct the blame for its aftermath squarely at Iran.

“If Baghdad cannot guarantee the Kurdish people in Iraq the security, freedom and opportunities they desire, and if the United States is forced to choose between Iranian-backed militias and our longstanding Kurdish partners, I choose the Kurds,” Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., wrote in an October New York Times op-ed.

Other influential lawmakers have also backed Erbil.

After the referendum, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., issued a statement calling on the Trump administration to back an independent Kurdish state.

“Iraq’s neighboring countries [are] led by despots who all oppose a Kurdish state because it threatens the status quo and their self-interests,” Schumer wrote in an implicit rebuke of Iran.

The final version of the defense bill also requires the Trump administration to submit a review of its strategy in Iraq and Syria to Congress as well as a quarterly “assessment of security in liberated areas in Iraq.” The assessment directs the administration to evaluate “the effectiveness of security forces in the post-conflict environment and an identification of which such forces will provide post-conflict stabilization and security in such liberated areas.”

The reports could provide greater clarity on the administration’s approach to dealing with Shiite militias and Iranian influence in Iraq following the defeat of IS.

Bryant Harris is Al-Monitor's congressional correspondent. He was previously the White House assistant correspondent for Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan's largest newspaper. He has also written for Foreign Policy, Al Jazeera English and IPS News. Prior to his stint in DC, he spent two years as a US Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco. On Twitter: @brykharris_ALM, Email: bharris@al-monitor.com.

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